Author: Beth Revis
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy, Young Adult, Dystopian
Publisher: Razorbill (Penguin)
Publication Date: January 2011
Hardcover: 416 pages
A Story of Love, Murder, and Madness Aboard an Enormous Spaceship Bound for the Future
Amy is a cryogenically frozen passenger aboard the vast spaceship Godspeed. She expects to wake up on a new planet, 300 years in the future. But fifty years before Godspeed’s scheduled landing, Amy’s cryo chamber is unplugged, and she is nearly killed.
Now, Amy is caught inside an enclosed world where nothing makes sense. Godspeed’s passengers have forfeited all control to Eldest, a tyrannical and frightening leader, and Elder, his rebellious and brilliant teenage heir.
Amy desperately wants to trust Elder. But should she? All she knows is that she must race to unlock Godspeed’s hidden secrets before whoever woke her tries to kill again.
Across the Universe is Titanic meets Brave New World.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 of a planned series
How did I get this book: ARC from the publisher
Why did I read this book: The cover was pretty, and I am a sucker for a good science fiction novel (although I gotta say that I have yet to read a contemporary YA scifi novel that has actually been good).
Do you ever notice that when a book blurb tries to sell you something as grandiose as “Across the Universe is Titanic meets Brave New World,” you end up almost inevitably disappointed?
Such is the case of my reading experience with Across the Universe.
This book had a whole lotta hype working its way: a pretty & kissy cover (scary questions of racial modification aside)[1. Check out this post if you want a good examination of the cover model and how his face was adjusted for the final product. Yes, Elder is supposed to be monoethnic – but that doesn’t change the disturbing connotation that photoshopping this model’s face carries.], it cashes in on the dystopian YA trend (which, in the words of Mugatu, is “SO hot right now”), and everyone from Kirkus to the YA blogosphere has been falling head over heels for Ms. Revis’s debut. As I’m a sucker for dystopias, YA, and science fiction, I had high hopes for Across the Universe…which unfortunately collapsed into a big melted puddle of cryo-liquid. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the story:
Amy is a teenage girl on a future iteration of Earth. The world has united, sort of, under a multi-national corporation (of greed) that is funding humanity’s excursion to a distant habitable planet, to exploit and harvest that planet’s presumably bountiful natural resources. Amy’s parents, a skilled biogeneticist and a high-ranking military officer, have both been selected and approved as vital crew for the Godspeed‘s mission. Amy, their only child, has to make an enormous decision: either join her parents in cryogenic sleep for 300 years, leaving everyone and everything that she’s ever known far behind her, or say farewell to her family and live the rest of her days on Earth without them. Although Amy’s father pushes for his daughter to stay behind, she decides to join her parents in a strange, future life on a planet she’s never heard of, and is placed in frozen storage with the other future colonists.
While Amy is frozen in an endless dream, life on the Godspeed for the non-frozen human crew, charged with maintenance of the ship and keeping things running smoothly, has changed drastically. Ever since a calamitous plague – known as The Plague [insert Sound of DOOM] – has ravaged the crew, decimating over half of the population, the organization and power hierarchy of the ship has been consolidated by a man given the name and title of “Eldest.” Every generation (which, on this ship, has been determined as a fixed 20 year span), humans on the ship will go into “season” and reproduce, but one child will always be born 16 years off-cycle – he will be known as Elder, who will be trained to become the next Eldest under the tutelage of the current Eldest. This process ensures that every generation has a new leader, and there will always be an Eldest training an Elder for his ascent to power.
After 250 or so years into the Godspeed’s mission, the current sixteen-year old Elder struggles with his role. Eldest, his mentor, is an unprecedented two generations his senior, as the last Elder…didn’t work out [Sound of DOOM!]. Eldest pushes Elder to learn the core tenets of leadership, but Elder’s curious streak often gets him into trouble. While researching his latest assignment (the mysterious third cause of social discord), Elder discovers an old schematic of the ship with a secret, hidden area that Elder has never seen before. Annotated as a Storage section, beneath the Feeder level, Elder immediately sets out to explore this hidden area only to find a girl [HINT: It’s Amy] encased in ice. With her bright red hair and palest of pale skin (a stark contrast to the dark “monoethnic” appearance of the humans aboard the ship), the girl is unlike any person Elder has ever seen before. He feels a burning curiosity to know this girl, and learn the stories of Sol-Earth she has left behind. When someone sabotages her cryochamber, Amy is luckily saved by Elder and the ship’s doctor before she’s nearly drowned in her thawed liquid – but her awakening is 50 years too early, and there is no way to put her back in stasis. Amy’s presence on the ethnically and behaviorally homogenized ship throws a wrench in Eldest’s carefully controlled and organized society, and Amy struggles to comprehend and adjust to the changes that have befallen the crew over the centuries she has slumbered. With a voice that echos his fears, curiosity and frustrations with Eldest’s rules, Elder and Amy begin to dig for the truth behind the lies. Meanwhile, someone knows Godspeed‘s and Eldest’s secrets, and the nameless saboteur continues to unplug, even murder, the ship’s precious cargo – and it is up to Elder and Amy to stop him.
In a nutshell, my biggest problems with Across the Universe was with its predictable and trite plot – which is kind of a halfhearted mashup of basic dystopian and sci fi tropes with a halfhearted Murder Mystery [IN SPACE!] and (of course!) the requisite tepid YA romance between the pretty, fragile (but feisty) girl and the handsome, (but frustrated) future-leader young man. The dual mysteries – of the whodunit with the unplugging the cryo-cargo and the true nature of Eldest’s agenda/rule – are painfully transparent, which makes the attempt at buildup and ultimate reveal all a bit anticlimactic.[2. Note to authors: if you are writing a mystery, readers KNOW the culprit is someone (or someones) we have been introduced to. So if you’re attempting at suspense, you should probably introduce more than just three characters outside of the narrators. I’m just sayin’.] Beyond the predictability of the mystery, the actual ideas in Across the Universe are standard, reheated fare, even down to a soma-like drug (of Brave New World) to the “feeders” on the ship. To that note, the dystopian elements of the novel are depressingly dichotomous, with Good and Bad very clearly defined, without even the slightest hint of subtlety or subtextual challenge. For example, at one point in the novel, Elder reflects on his lessons from Eldest which stated that Hitler was a wise leader, how God and religion are fairy tales – which later in the book is challenged adamantly by Amy (of course). To me, the best dystopian works are the ones that aren’t preachy or have messages channeled through a loudspeaker; they’re the ones that get under your skin and ask the tough questions with no easy answers. Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, Across the Universe certainly ain’t. Furthermore, there’s a decided lack of background politics and world development, which is sort of inserted throughout the book in the manner of background characters speaking, or through Elder’s lessons. This could have been an awesome opportunity for exploration and growth, but is sadly neglected.
With the mechanics out of the way, what about the actual writing, you may ask? After all, it makes sense that Amy wouldn’t give a crap about the politics or events shaping her world – she’s a teen that is more interested in her first love and leaving everything she’s ever known behind. Without the plot, Revis’s writing style and characterizations can be examined on their own…but, unfortunately, both are similarly underwhelming. The writing style and choice – with alternating points of view with Amy and Elder’s narratives – felt forced and awkward to me, with both Amy and Elder’s voices sounding far too similar.[3. For a good example of the alternating YA boy and girl narrative technique, see Patrick Ness’s truly Chaos Walking books.] Also, I really, really hated how every chapter ends with a trying-to-be-poignant short sentence.[4. For example, at random four chapter endings (from the ARC): “It is only then that I realize she was afraid it was one of her parents floating dead amongst the stars.” “And in her smile I see something more beautiful than stars.” “And even though I know their eyes aren’t interested in me, the soullessness of them fills me with a dread I cannot explain.” “Because sometimes the dreams of the new world turn into nightmares.”] The style felt very much like the awkward, attempting at lyrical thing that Matched by Ally Condie had going on (not a compliment). Though the romance element of the book isn’t fully developed, of course Elder is instantly fascinated and drawn to Amy; of course Amy feels the same way towards Elder, almost immediately. I liked that the romance was on the back burner, but it would be kind of cool to read a dystopian/SF YA title that didn’t use romance as a subplot at all. But…that’s just personal preference, I suppose.
Finally, my last sizable issue with Across the Universe is maybe a bit nitpicky, but I think it warrants mention. As a so-called Science Fiction novel, Across the Universe makes a few really, really silly basic science 101 mistakes. I don’t really care or expect this book to explore the inner workings of cryogenics or genetics, and am certainly happy and willing to suspend disbelief (especially in a soft SF/YA title). That said, there are two major problems for me, as a reader with at least a rudimentary knowledge of science:
1. Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. A space ship will not slow down in outer space, as outer space is a freakin’ vacuum – that is, there is no friction or opposing force in space. The ship Godspeed is using accelerated particles/standard propulsion engine (not a hyperdrive/faster-than-light warp drive or whatever). Therefore, they only need one “burn” and the ship will continue to go at the same speed in perpetuity.
2. There’s a weird genetics assumption thing going on: that is, that different traits like “creativity” are coded in DNA, or held in a single gene that can be isolated and reproduced. Okaaaaay. I suppose this is the far future, so I’ll allow that – but hey, given the ship’s supposed engine problems, shouldn’t the DNA tinkering folks have created more…I don’t know, ENGINEERING minded babies? Just saying.
So there you have it – my immense disappointment with Across the Universe. This past year alone, I can think of two books that use the same sort of tropes and do it sooooo much better (Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear and Living Hell by Catherine Jinks). I wanted to like this book, but alas – it wasn’t in the cards.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1 (which is actually an awesome chapter – which makes the letdown so much more intense):
Daddy said, “Let Mom go first.”
Mom wanted me to go first. I think it was because she was afraid that after they were contained and frozen, I’d walk away, return to life rather than consign myself to that cold, clear box. But Daddy insisted.
“Amy needs to see what it’s like. You go first, let her watch. Then she can go and I’ll be with her. I’ll go last.”
“You go first,” Mom said. “I’ll go last.”
But the long and the short of it is that you have to be naked, and neither of them wanted me to see either of them naked (not like I wanted to see them in all their nude glory, gross), but given the choice, it’d be best for Mom to go first, since we had the same parts and all. She looked so skinny after she undressed. Her collarbone stood out more; her skin had that rice-paper-thin, over-moisturized consistency old people’s skin has. Her stomach—a part of her she always kept hidden under clothes—sagged in a wrinkly sort of way that made her look even more vulnerable and weak.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Want some GOOD recent science fiction that plays on the same tropes as Across the Universe (but does it much, much better)?
Rating: 5 – A Universe of Meh.
Reading Next: The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier